Friday, July 3, 2009

Two Tracks in the Revised Common Lectionary

In comments on another posting a while back, someone asked me a question about the relationship between the Old Testament reading and the rest of the readings in the Sunday lectionary after the Day of Pentecost. I thought it might be interesting to post some of my reflections on this for others.

During the season after the Day of Pentecost in the Revised Common Lectionary, there are two tracks for the Old Testament readings. For the sake of continuity, parishes are supposed to choose one or the other.

Track One is a semi-continuous reading of major Old Testament books. So starting in June through mid-August in Track One, Year B, quite a bit of 2 Samuel is read.

By contrast, Track Two is a Gospel-related track in which the Old Testament reading is selected because it has some sort of thematic connection to the Gospel reading appointed for the day. So during the same June through mid-August period during Year B, this track features numerous Old Testament books, including Ezekiel, Job, Amos, Jeremiah, Exodus, and Proverbs. This is a very similar approach to what we have in the now defunct Prayer Book lectionary.

The idea behind Track One is a laudable one, i.e., that we tend to short-change the Old Testament in our Sunday Eucharistic lectionary, and that we need to hear more of the Old Testament and be more familiar with it. And also that if we're hearing the development of some of the great Old Testament stories over the course of successive Sundays, there are unique opportunities for preaching that otherwise might be missing.

The Achilles heel of the Track One approach is the assumption that you have a sufficient critical mass of persons who actually come to church Sunday after Sunday to hear the unfolding of the Old Testament readings in this way. Since Memorial Day, attendance where I serve has been sporadic (a typical and predictable summertime pattern). Which means that if we're using Track One, many of our people are going to miss huge chunks of the story. So when they come to church, it's sort of like sitting down to watch a 2 hour movie when you've missed the first 90 minutes.

An additional issue is that the Track One approach quite often has Old Testament readings that do not have any thematic connection whatsoever to the Epistle or Gospel readings for the day. That can create a sense of dissonance for preacher and parishioner alike.

A couple of years ago we used Track One, but for the past two years we switched to using Track Two. In light of the problems raised above, I'm more pleased with the Track Two approach.

Which track are you using in your parish and why?


bls said...

I've just written a post outlining a different concern (although now I notice you talk a bit about this at the end of your own).

Vicki said...

We've been using Track One for the reasons you have cited, and some summers I have been able to preach in a connective way on the Old Testament lessons over several weeks. In part I have been motivated from the experience I had as a young adult of siting down an reading the whole patriarchal cycle as a story, which I had never gotten from the BCP Lectionary. On the other hand, I do sometimes feel the disconnect from the Epistle and Gospel. And one thing I really dislike about the RCL is the use of a different set of Propers for each year for the holy days. Sometimes (particularly in Year C) these are a real stretch. They also counteract the deep identification between certain Scriptural passages and the annual calendar, as Derek has often pointed out. I like (at least on major feast days)being able to almost recite one or more of the readings from memory under my breath while I am listening to it, or big chunks, at least.

So, for now we are still using Track One, and often at holy days I'll use the BCP lessons, but I'm open to being persudaed otherwise.

Vicki McGrath+

Derek the Ænglican said...

The fundamental problem here is that the RCL mistakes the purpose of a mass lectionary.

Historically, a mass lectionary never operated on its own---it always operated within the context of an Office lectionary. The purpose of an Office lectionary is catechetical. It presents the broad swath of Scripture, typically moving through the *entire Bible* in a year (or, in the '79 form, two years). The Mass lectionary then is mystagogical and uses selected readings where the non-Gospel is connected to the Gospel usually in a typological manner.

The issue is that at Vatican II, the fathers of the council decided that a catechetical Office lectionary was hopeless and attempted to press the predecessor of the RCL into fulfilling both functions. The summer lectio continua is the clearest expression of this in addition to adding another non-Gospel reading.

The RCL thus tries to do both and, unable to do both, ends up mixing the two poorly...

Fr. Reich said...

I'm still with the '28 one year cycle, no worries with the OT at all.

Cycle Two for us.

Bryan Owen said...

bls, thanks for the link to your posting on what's wrong with the RCL. It's always important to get the musicians' take on liturgical matters. You've pinpointed some real problems, and I've read others who are concerned that the RCL is pushing TEC in a more and more Protestant direction. There was a piece about that in The Living Church a while back, but I can't seem to find it.

Thanks for sharing what your parish is doing with the two tracks, Vicki. I can certainly see the attraction of being able to "preach in a connective way" using the semi-continuous OT readings in Track One. That's not really possible where I'm currently serving, however, since, with 4 priests and a deacon, there's a different voice in the pulpit each week. And even if I could do that, there's still the problem that attendance is very sporadic during the summer months. So only the few who show up each week would really benefit from that approach to preaching.

Derek, I appreciate the distinction you're making between the catechetical purpose of the Daily Office lectionary and the mystagogical purpose of the Eucharistic lectionary. I'd never thought of it in that way before.

And Jeff, are you saying that y'all are using the '28 lectionary? Who has the authority to grant permission for that?

Fr. Reich said...

I thought I was clear we were track II. Thought the levity would come through. In the '28 lectionary, it was (usually) only the Epistle and Gospel no need to worry with following a book through or connecting O.T. to Gospel...

I use Track II b/c I prefer the attempt at connectivity between O.T. and new. The Old Testament does not stand alone and is interpreted through the Light of the Gospel- it is only through Christ (the fulfillment) that we can make sense out of the Old Covenant.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the clarification, Jeff. I like the rationale you're using for Track Two. It's part of the reason why I have chosen it for the Cathedral these past two years.

Joe Rawls said...

At my parish we've done readings from Samuel for the last 2 Sundays, so i guess we're in track 1. Why, I don't know because I'm not that much in the loop. I manage to do Morning and Evening Prayer most days, which is the best way I know of to get lots of exposure to the OT. Getting people to commit to long-term scripture study--even of the NT--is really tough.

Bryan Owen said...

You are so right, Joe. Getting people to commit to long-term scripture study - at least in the Episcopal Church (and I'm speaking in general terms, knowing there may be exceptions out there) - is, indeed, a very difficult thing. Which is very sad. Our ignorance of the scriptures undermines so much of our potential as a Church, allowing other, less generously orthodox traditions, appear to have a copyright on what scripture says and is all about.

Bill Carroll said...

We are using track one, mostly because we just implemented RCL (as we are required to do), and I wanted to experience as much difference from the BCP lectionary as possible. That said, I do prefer thematic linkage, for more or less the reasons Derek gives and will go to track II and probably stay there, once I've experienced the whole cycle once through.

Whatever lectionary we use, it is important to preach regularly on OT texts. Some Episcopal priests I know seem unwilling to take on the Epistle, let alone the OT. Thematic linkage has a huge advantage in inviting an OT sermon with some reference to the Christological basis of covenant.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for your comments, Bill. I agree that it is important to preach on the OT texts, although in my experience it is very rare to hear sermons in the Episcopal Church on either the OT or Epistle readings. I wonder if that resonates with the experience of others and, if so, why we clergy are hesitant to preach on those texts.

Bill Carroll said...

With the OT, there is a lot of Marcionite theology. I've also heard the old 19th century liberal opposition between Jesus and Paul espoused. Any historical perspective would tell you that Paul is writing from a perspective that is at least as close to Jesus and the apostles as the four Gospels. But that's immaterial. We need to hear from the whole canon.